For many, without mincing words, Florence is the most beautiful city in Italy. And objectively, the points in its favour are really many: walking aimlessly through the streets of the historic centre, you can admire art and culture at every turn, from Renaissance palaces to elegant 19th-century residences, not to mention the almost infinite number of churches, museums and sculptures. All of this, it must be said, strictly within the centre, which is not small but is compact enough to be walked around comfortably.
There are so many things to see in Florence, counting both the truly unmissable attractions and those known only to a few, perhaps by locals or city enthusiasts. Of course, the first time you come to Florence you will want to start with the main ones, so we have compiled a list of must-see attractions to make you fall in love with the Tuscan capital right away.
In any case, leave yourself some time to wander around the streets of the centre, enjoying a drink al fresco or indulging in some shopping: between typical artisan shops and luxury boutiques, there is no shortage of shopping opportunities in the city.
Visiting the entire Santa Maria del Fiore complex, more commonly known as the Duomo of Florence, allows you to tick off the list of must-see sights four times in one: the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral itself, its iconic dome by Brunelleschi, Giotto’s bell tower and the baptistery of San Giovanni. Take some time to climb to the top of the dome or bell tower, depending on where you find the least queue, for a sensational view of the city centre; once back down, brave the crowds and visit the church’s sumptuous interior.
For art lovers, in front of the cathedral is the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which houses works removed from the square and the cathedral, including Lorenzo Ghiberti’s original Gate of Paradise taken from the baptistery (what is now the entrance door to the baptistery is a copy), cantorie by Donatello and Luca della Robbia, a Pietà by Michelangelo from inside the cathedral and much more.
After visiting the Duomo, take Via Calzaiuoli, the shopping street par excellence in Florence. It connects Piazza del Duomo to the other square that is fundamental to the historical and social fabric of Florence, Piazza della Signoria. Here the undisputed star is Palazzo Vecchio, today the seat of the municipality of Florence, in the past the seat of the Florentine republic and from 1865 to 1871 the seat of the Parliament of the Kingdom of Italy.
It is possible to visit Palazzo Vecchio free of charge as far as the ground floor and the beautiful inner courtyard are concerned, while some rooms can only be visited for a fee by purchasing a ticket for the Palazzo Vecchio museum. Among the many, the magnificent Salone dei Cinquecento, Italy’s largest room built for the administration of civil power, stands out.
Palazzo Vecchio is a splendid example of 14th-century Florentine architecture, which can be found in many other historical buildings in Tuscany, such as the Torre del Mangia in Piazza del Campo in Siena. Next to it is the marvellous Loggia dei Lanzi, a true open-air museum, completely free of charge, where you can admire some splendid statues, including Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women.
Finally, among the many beauties of Piazza Signoria, we would like to mention a few statues, including the Fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati and the very famous David by Michelangelo, which, however, is a copy: the original is in fact exhibited at the nearby Accademia Gallery.
Of the four bridges spanning the historic centre of Florence, the most famous, most photographed, most distinctive and certainly most beautiful is undoubtedly the Ponte Vecchio. Its iconic shape has made it one of the undisputed symbols of the city. Walk along it back and forth, and stop to admire the goldsmiths’ workshops and jewellery shops, still as active today as ever. Halfway along the bridge is a beautiful clearing, where you can stop and take the perfect souvenir photo of Florence.
Not everyone knows that Ponte Vecchio is surmounted by one of the city’s most special attractions: it is the Vasari Corridor, a corridor almost 800 metres long, built by architect Giorgio Vasari in 1565 at the behest of Cosimo I de’ Medici, to connect Palazzo Vecchio, the political and administrative centre of the city, with Palazzo Pitti, the Medici’s private residence.
Piazza di Santa Croce in Florence is a veritable institution: it is in fact one of the Florentines’ favourite squares, especially because every year in June it is set up, with grandstands and a huge sand court, to play the much-awaited Florentine calcio storico, or calcio in costume, a sporting event that pits the four districts of the historic centre against each other in one-on-one knockout matches. The final is played on St John‘s Day, 24 June, in a Piazza Santa Croce more crowded than ever.
But also on the other days of the year, Piazza Santa Croce is a must-see, thanks mainly to the presence of the beautiful basilica of Santa Croce, with its stunning neo-Gothic façade. To the left of the basilica is the statue of Dante, made in 1865.
Piazza Santa Croce is also the site of the typical Christmas market held during the city’s festive season, and is also one of the beating hearts of Florentine nightlife, as a large number of nightclubs are concentrated in its side streets.
It is impossible to leave Florence without first visiting the Uffizi Gallery, the most visited museum in the city and certainly one of the most famous in the world. Inside you can admire truly unique masterpieces of art, including Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera, Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni, Piero della Francesca’s double portrait of the Dukes of Urbino, Giotto’s Maestà di Ognissanti, Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, Titian Vecellio’s Venus of Urbino and many, many more.
A visit to the Uffizi can take from a few hours to even the whole day, depending of course on how in-depth you want to go with the viewing and exploration of the individual works. In some sections of the gallery you can also admire a splendid panorama of Florence, both from the Piazza Signoria side and from the Arno side, with a magnificent view of the Ponte Vecchio. Before exiting, a beautiful open-air terrace allows you to get very close to Palazzo Vecchio, and it almost feels as if you can touch it.
For many, the Accademia Gallery is ‘only’ the museum where Michelangelo‘s original statue of David is kept. Of course, she is the absolute star of the museum, but there is much more to it than that. For a start, it is the museum that exhibits the most Michelangelo statues in the world: in addition to the David, there are six others. In addition, you can admire the world’s largest collection of gold-ground paintings, as well as other priceless ancient works.
There are 12 rooms in the Accademia Gallery: among them, don’t miss the Hall of the Colossus, where you can admire more than 100 works, including the original plaster sketch of the Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna, and the Prison Gallery, where in addition to the 4 statues by Michelangelo ‘i Prigioni’, depicting as many male nudes, there are also masterpieces by Andrea del Sarto, Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio and Pontormo.
The Accademia Gallery is located in Via Ricasoli, an elegant street in the centre of Florence that connects Piazza San Marco to Piazza del Duomo. It is open daily from 9am to 6.15pm, and is closed on Mondays.
You cannot leave Florence without first visiting a museum dedicated to one of its most illustrious citizens. We are of course talking about Leonardo da Vinci, who lived a good part of his life in the Tuscan capital.
There are actually two museums in the city dedicated to Leonardo, very close to each other, but our favourite is undoubtedly the Leonardo da Vinci Interactive Museum. As you can imagine from the name, it is a totally interactive museum, which allows visitors to have a completely new experience, where they learn to understand and use the machines designed by Leonardo. It is possible to try out as many as 50 machines, fully functional, reconstructed according to the drawings of the multifaceted Florentine genius.
Furthermore, ample space is dedicated to his most famous works, such as the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper or the Lady with an Ermine. There is in fact a room, called the Hall of Paintings, which displays faithful digital reproductions, displayed in full size and in very high resolution. In this way, it is possible to admire these masterpieces up close and appreciate their countless details.
The Leonardo da Vinci Interactive Museum is open every day of the week from 10:00 to 18:00. Last admission is at 5pm. It is located at Via dei Servi 66/R, not far from the cathedral in Florence, and tickets can be bought at the ticket office or directly online. There are reductions for young people and students, while children under 5 years old get free admission.
The basilica of Santa Maria Novella is located in the square of the same name, behind the main railway station in Florence. It is practically the first attraction in the city centre that you can see once you get off the train, although the façade, by far the most aesthetically pleasing part of the church, is on the opposite side, the one facing the square. The façade is made of marble and can be listed among the most important works of the Florentine Renaissance, although it was not finally completed until 1920.
The rest of the square is occupied by a series of outdoor cafes and restaurants, a well-kept flowerbed with a non-walkable lawn and beautiful flowers, and the Spedale delle Leopoldine, whose 15 rooms now house the Museo Novecento, dedicated to 20th century Italian art, with over 300 works on permanent display and numerous temporary exhibitions and installations.
The former private residence of the Medici family makes a fine show in Piazza Pitti. We are of course talking about Palazzo Pitti, a huge building located in the Oltrarno area. Built in 1458 as the residence of the banker Luca Pitti, it was bought by the Medici about a century later, and was donated to the state in 1919 by Victor Emmanuel III. From that day to the present, Palazzo Pitti has been a state museum complex, inside which numerous museums can be visited.
The most important of these is the Palatine Gallery, consisting of 28 rooms housing paintings of great importance, mainly dating back to the 1600s; it is flanked by the Monumental Apartments, where it is possible to admire 14 rooms part of the old Royal Apartments and 6 rooms part of the Tapestries Apartment, and the other museums in the complex: the Gallery of Modern Art, the Porcelain Museum, the Grand Dukes’ Treasury, the Museum of Fashion and Costume and the Carriage Museum.
The enormous Boboli Garden was originally the private garden of the Pitti Palace. Today, it can be visited independently and is one of the most brilliant examples of Italian gardens in the world. With its numerous statues and sculptures and its architectural design, it is a true open-air museum, and is visited by more than 800,000 people every year.
Among them, many visitors are the Florentines themselves, who besides being entitled to free admission love to crowd the lawns of the garden to relax in the sun and admire magnificent views of the city from above.
The Boboli Garden dates back to the 16th century and covers an area of more than 45,000 square metres. In 2013, the Boboli Garden is under UNESCO protection, part of a unique world heritage site called the Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany.
Before leaving Florence, leave the historical centre to see it one last time from the top of Piazzale Michelangelo. Take bus number 13 or get there on foot in about 35 minutes from Santa Maria Novella station, passing through the picturesque San Niccolò quarter and then climbing the stairs of Monte alle Croci. Once at the top, all your fatigue will be amply repaid: the view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo (simply ‘the Piazzale’ for Florentines) is truly unique.
Actually, it is not really unique, since it will give you a feeling of having already seen it: yes, because this magnificent view of the Florentine historical centre is immortalised on practically all postcards, on all mugs, on all key rings and on everything you can buy in a souvenir shop! But being there in person, of course, is an entirely different feeling: take your time, take all the photos you need and then say goodbye to Florence, with the promise to return as soon as possible.
Let’s return to the historic centre: next to the basilica of San Lorenzo is the San Lorenzo open-air market, where for centuries it has been possible to buy objects, accessories and clothes mainly made of leather. Of course, with the advent of mass tourism, the San Lorenzo market has been transformed and today there are also many stalls dedicated to souvenirs. Visit it with the intention of buying a nice souvenir to take home, and you will not regret it. If you feel up to it, negotiate on price to get a good bargain.
As you walk through the streets of the San Lorenzo market, you will certainly notice a large cast iron and glass building. Inside it houses the Mercato Centrale, divided into two levels. On the lower floor are the food stalls: fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, as well as some stalls selling typical Tuscan products to buy as souvenirs.
The first floor , on the other hand, was completely renovated and refurbished only in 2017, and hosts 12 stalls, each of which cooks typical Tuscan or Italian gastronomic specialities on the spot. It is possible to taste them standing or taking advantage of the 500 seats. The upper floor of the Mercato Centrale is open 7 days a week, from 10 a.m. to midnight.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article